Book In Common: The Ingalls set themselves in for a long hard winter

Early yesterday morning, about 2:58, I woke up suddenly, just in time to see a weird green flash that lit my driveway like daytime. The wind was howling and scratching – I knew it was a transformer. I looked at the bedside table to see my alarm clock had gone dark.

So, my husband decided to take out his cellphone and see how easy it would be to report the outage at 3 am. It was very easy. The computer sounded just like Suri from Apple. She was very nice, walking my husband through the report,  estimated the crew would be in the neighborhood within 45 minutes, asked him if he wanted phone or text updates of repairs and then offered a wake-up call so the outage wouldn’t make anybody late for work.

The power was back on by 4:30 – wow!

I still don’t trust PG&E after that big power-outage years back, but I’ll give them credit – this year, they’ve been right on stuff. Maybe the squeaky wheel really does get the grease.

I have been reading “The Long Winter,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura had gone to sleep to the sounds of rain on the roof of her family’s little claim shanty – rough boards covered with tar paper. She thought she felt the splash of water on her blanket, but is so tired she falls asleep. The next morning she wakes to find frost and snow on her blankets, and realizes the rain has turned to a snowstorm. The thin windows are “swirling white.” 

The air is so cold in the room, she grabs her clothes and heads for the tiny wood stove, where her ma has just thrown in some wood. They dress so close to the stove as to touch it, with no comfort. Pa has gone out to check the animals in the barn, using the haystacks he made carefully in between the house and the barn to make his way in the whiteout. 

When Pa comes in the snow blows in after him. It’s so cold it doesn’t melt, Laura sweeps it up with a broom and gathers it in a pan for washing – there will be no trips to the well today. Pa says the weather has torn the tar paper off the roof. The wall  boards shrank in the summer heat and now the batting between the cracks is coming loose.  

The air in the shanty does not heat up. They wrap in shawls and quilts and huddle around the stove all day. Pa tells stories and plays his fiddle. At one point he calls the girls to march like little soldiers so they will get warm.  They huddle in their beds at night, shaking the snow off their blankets every morning.  For three days this goes on, as the firewood  dwindles and the house rattles around them. 

I live in a little house too, but my house is built a lot more sturdy. Today we have fiberglass insulation and dual pane windows, as well as natural gas and forced air heat. I’ve been camping in the snow, but that’s been for fun, and we could load up in the  car and go home any time we wanted.

The Ingalls decide to move to a building they own in town. Pa built the claim shanty to satisfy the law, but he realizes the family will never make it over a winter in the little rattletrap. All their neighbors are moving to town. When he goes to the store one day, he meets an old “Indian” – “native American” – who tells him the signs point to the worst winter in some 21 years. The old man tells him, the blizzards seem to have a seven year cycle, and every seven years they get worse until the 21st year, when there will be snow for seven months straight. Pa has the sense to put aside his racist feelings and believe the old man.

When I read this book I am always glad my ancestor skipped  right over the mid west, taking a boat to California. My family settled in the Sierra Nevada, in a town that is snowed in for a few weeks every winter, but nothing like the Ingalls will withstand in this book. 

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